Alaska’s back country lay before us like a rugged, untouched utopia. Aboard a tricked-out school bus, my just-graduated son and I were on Denali National Park’s Tundra Wilderness Tour. Female grizzlies grazed with their cubs. Statuesque Dahl sheep paerched on steep mountinsides. Herds of caribou congregated near rivers. Moose and skittish fox found cover in low vegetation. Golden eagles soared overhead. …Not all at once. But gradually, breathtaking, magnificently, life in the back country revealed itself.
No two days or excursions are alike. When it comes to spotting wildlife, it’s the luck of the day as to what’s out at any given time. But chances of seeing a bear increase deeper into the park. In early June, our journey gifted us. Territorial grizzly boars, one blonde and one black-brown, chased each other along a river bed. And an elusive silver coyote, in the photo above, feasted on its kill.
Is this 8-hour bus trip, 53 miles one way, worth the time, energy and price? Absolutely! Cars are only allowed to drive the first 14 miles into the park on the only portion of paved roadway. It’s only when you head back into the heart of Denali that the vastness—and the complete quiet—begin to unfold.
Buses negotiate the narrow, dirt road and take hairpin turns, sometimes 600 feet above the valley floor. (In the photo above, that’s our ribbon of road cutting through the top third of the mountain.) Experienced drivers make it look amazingly easy. Naturalists narrate each tour, which go as far as the Toklat River rest area. Our guide had been working in the park for years. Fellow passengers hailed from across the globe.
Denali’s six million acres mesmerized us at every turn. Mountain ranges framed silver-thin rivers. Vast and other worldly vistas were the norm.
Within this sub-arctic ecosystem, permafrost ground underlies a thin layer of topsoil that supports life.
Warm seasons, prized by man and animal, allow the park’s 39 mammal species and 167 bird species to raise young and prepare for harsh, winter months.